Zhou Bo, Seth Jones: China’s Power Up for Debate 2021

  • Bonny : Good morning, welcome to the 2021 China Power conference. I'm Bonny Lin, director of the China Power Project and senior fellow for Asian security at CSIS. Thank you for joining us today. Our debate topic focuses on Afghanistan, in particular whether China will establish itself as the most influential external power in Afghanistan within the next two years.

    Following the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan, China has taken measures to support the new Taliban controlled government. China has maintained its embassy in Kabul, held high level meetings with the Taliban and regional leaders on the future of Afghanistan, and called upon the international community to work with the Taliban in a rational and pragmatic matter.

    At the same time, China has donated one million doses of Covid-19 vaccines and is stepping up efforts to deliver about $31 million in emergency humanitarian assistance for Afghanistan. Beijing intends to provide another $5 million worth of food assistance.

    As China is engaging in these activities, there is significant debate on China’s goals for Afghanistan. Some experts posit that Beijing seeks to pull Kabul into China’s geopolitical orbit, while others suggest that China hopes to integrate Afghanistan more deeply into the Belt & Road initiative, or maybe even extract Afghanistan’s mineral deposits.

    Beijing is widely believed to want the Taliban’s cooperation on national security issues, such as rooting out the East Turkestan Islamic movement, which Beijing considers a significant terrorist and separatist threat in Xinjiang.

    However, others doubt that China wants to secure a significant political and economic foothold in Afghanistan due to regional instability, previous failed economic partnerships and potentially even China’s own desire to keep Afghanistan at arm's length.

    Today’s debate is on the proposition: “Within the next two years, China will establish itself as the most influential external power within Afghanistan”. Let me now move on to introduce our two speakers. So, we are very delighted to have with us two excellent speakers debating both for and against this proposition.

    Arguing for the proposition is Senior Colonel (retired) Zhou Bo, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategy and Security at Tsinghua University and a China forum expert. Senior Colonel Zhou started his military service in 1979.

    He served in different posts in Guangzhou air force regional command. From 1993, he worked successively as staff officer, deputy director general of West Asia and Africa Bureau and then deputy director general of general planning Bureau of the foreign affairs office of the Ministry of national defense of China.

    He was also the Chinese defense attaché to the Republic of Namibia and director of the Center for Security Cooperation in the Office for International Military Cooperation, Ministry of National Defense.

    He has published more than 100 essays and opinions in English. Senior Colonel Zhou Bo also speaks as a PLA delegate at the Shangri-la dialogue in Singapore and at the Munich Security Conference, and is a supervisor to foreign postgraduate officers at the PLA national defense University.

    We're also delighted to have with us today arguing against the proposition Dr Seth Jones, senior vice president, Harold brown Chair and director of the International Security Program at CSIS. Dr. Jones leads a bipartisan team of over 50 resident staff and extensive network of non-resident affiliates dedicated to providing independent strategic insights and policy solutions that shape national security.

    He also teaches at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and the Center for Homeland Defense and Security at the US Naval Postgraduate School. Prior to joining CSIS, Dr Jones was the director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation.

    He also served as a representative for the Commander of U.S. Special Operations Command and to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations. Before that, he was a plans officer and advisor to the commanding general US special operations forces in Afghanistan.

    So thank you both for taking the time to join us this morning. So, first, let me turn to Senior Colonel Zhou Bo for his initial presentation on why China will become the most influential external power within Afghanistan.

    Zhou Bo:

    Thank you, Bonny, and good evening from Beijing. Well, this is a good question whether within the next two years China will establish itself as the most influential external power within Afghanistan. Let's assume, if it is not China, then who else can it be? The United States has gone. Russia has a battered record in Afghanistan and its economy is just one-ninth or one-tenth of that of China. India, of course, wants to come in, but because of the Taliban’s strong ties with Pakistan, Pakistan does not want India in for two reasons.

    First, Pakistan always takes Afghanistan as its strategic depth, and secondly, it will try its best to minimize the influence of India in Afghanistan. Therefore, China’s role as a direct neighbor and the second-largest economy would certainly be helpful.

    Besides, I believe that China has two unique advantages in Afghanistan. One is political impartiality, the other is an economic investment. At the first, Afghans do not have bad memories of China, be it in Tang Dynasty over 1000 years ago or now between two countries. Unlike those invaders that came from afar to invade Afghanistan, China is a close neighbor which has never invaded Afghanistan.

    So even today, China’s still among the few countries to keep its embassy open in Afghanistan, even though Beijing has not yet officially recognized the Taliban government. This does not mean that China has any special love for the Taliban, because China’s position on the Afghan issue before and after Americans’ pullout is the same, and it is in line with the international community.

    We in China consider the Afghan issue not something about geopolitics or big power wrestling. It's more about humanity and humanitarian care. We, like the international community, with the Taliban government could become moderate, open, and inclusive. Of course, we also wish they can make a clear break away from terrorist groups. China has a special concern, as Bonny mentioned just now, for the East Turkestan Islamic movement that aims to destabilize Xinjiang. We wish the Taliban will honor its promise that it won't allow anyone or any force using Afghan territory to harm China.

    Now let me talk about a second unique advantage of China, which is an economic investment. Even in China, from time to time, we would have people talking about how China should be cautious or China should not be overly optimistic.

    But I think somewhat differently because it's not a question of whether China should enter into Afghanistan or not. China was already there in Afghanistan even during wartime.

    China is the third-largest trading partner of Afghanistan after only Pakistan and Iran. Chinese products are highly competitive in Afghanistan. And in Afghanistan, there are big Chinese companies, which are among the top five hundred largest companies in the world, like Huawei, ZTE, China Railway Engineering Group Limited, China metallurgical group corporation, and China national petroleum company.

    These companies have been there for quite some time. Besides, China’s capability in infrastructure building and industry is next to none. And these are badly needed for a war-torn country, a country where industry capability is next to zero.

    And this is also what the Taliban wants. In their official statements, the Taliban have expressed time and again that they would welcome Chinese companies to invest in Afghanistan. And even before its takeover of Kabul, the Taliban has promised to protect Chinese investment in Afghanistan.

    Of course, the security issue is crucial for massive Chinese investment. But simply speaking, isn't Afghanistan now safer than during wartime? Of course, it is. There’s a bigger background, the whole of China’s Belt & Road initiative, to a great extent, overlaps with the so-called “Arc of instability” on land. The arc of instability starts from the southern Sahara, it goes through the Caucasus mountains and lands finally somewhere in Southeast Asia. And this is exactly how China’s Belt & Road initiative on land is unfolding.

    Besides, Afghanistan also has what China needs, for example, the $1 trillion untapped mineral deposit, including critical industrial metals such as lithium, iron, copper, and cobalt.

    Actually, in November, representatives of five Chinese companies obtained a special visa from the Taliban government to have an onsite inspection of potential lithium projects. So this is a good example of how Chinese companies might further explore the market of Afghanistan.

    One of China’s long-term strategic investment plans is the Belt & Road initiative, and Afghanistan until now has been an attractive but missing piece of the enormous puzzle. If China were able to extend the Belt & Road from Pakistan through to Afghanistan, for example, with the Peshawar to Kabul motorway, it would open up a shorter land route to gain access to markets in the Middle East.

    Although China has its unique advantages but does not count on China to fill in the black hole left by the United States. I do not consider China would be the first country to recognize the Taliban. But I believe the international community should help Afghanistan to become a normal country because that would be most conducive to peace and stability of the country and is also conducive to the security and the stability of the whole region.

    If the Taliban government becomes paralyzed, then Afghanistan would be plunged into more serious chaos. Currently, the situation is already very much dire. In this winter, nearly 23 million people, which means more than half of the population, might have a problem of food insecurity. This country is confronting one of the worst droughts in decades. According to the United Nations, Afghanistan’s wheat harvest is expected to be as much as 25% below average this year.

    Then how can we solve all these problems? My answer is very simple——Give the Taliban a chance, let them honor their promise of being inclusive and open. This is the most realistic approach. Why? Because unless there is serious internal conflict within the Taliban, the Taliban regime will maintain its rule for a long time to come because there are no other political or military forces that can counterbalance the Taliban.

    If the Taliban government stabilizes and practices domestic or foreign policies that are not extreme, then for all the countries in the region, it's only a matter of time as to when to recognize the Taliban government, because we have to face the reality. But I believe the Taliban government should have learned something from the 1990s when they took power. At least they said the right things. They've promised to be open and inclusive, to let women go to work and let girls go to school. The only problem is they have yet to fully realize their promise.

    Now let me talk a bit about what the United States should do, what China and the United States can do, and what the United Nations can do.

    Now the United States has withdrawn, but still, the United States cannot leave Afghanistan completely. First, this is a moral issue. The “forever war” of the United States in Afghanistan had devastated this country. So it is immoral for the United States just to leave. Biden’s slogan is “build back better”. But why shouldn't the United States build back Afghanistan better? The White House has announced that the United States plans to make its first investment in overseas infrastructure projects as part of the G7’s “build back better world” initiative in January. But it seems that given all the countries I mentioned in the tour of national security advisor Daleep Singh, Afghanistan is not among the countries on his recent “listening tours”.

    Second, I believe the Biden administration must race against time to de-freeze Afghan liquidity and overseas assets and lift unilateral sanctions because the window is closing. According to New York Times, aid groups say this winter one million children might be starved to death. When I read this figure of one million, I thought of the Rwanda genocide in 1994, which reportedly killed 800,000 to one million people. Of course, we shall see how true that it is. But even if 1000 children die, let alone one million, it will be more humiliating than US catastrophic withdrawal from Afghanistan. It will be another catastrophe on the moral ground and image of the United States. Why? Because when Afghans are dying, their money that should have been used to save lives is still in American banks, and the American government simply would not give it back to Afghans. The Federal Reserve in New York holds about seven billion US dollars from the previous Afghan government. The World Bank holds 1.5 billion US dollars in trust for Afghanistan. Afghanistan's economy depends on aid, with grants financing approximately 75% of public spending, and international donors accounted for 43% of its GDP. Since the Taliban takeover, banks are running out of cash, and even those with savings are unable to access the funds. This is a miserable situation.

    Now, can China and the US cooperate bilaterally or multilaterally to solve this problem? China and the United States are the largest and second-largest economies that have special responsibilities for world peace and stability.

    Cooperation in Afghanistan actually might help this relationship which is extremely complicated and ever-competitive between China and the US. And we do have a lot of things in common on the issue of Afghanistan.

    Neither China nor the United States wishes to see Afghanistan sliding into a civil war, both of us support a political solution that is Afghan-led and Afghan-owned, and both of us hope the Taliban would become open and inclusive.

    When Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi spoke to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken in August, he said China stood ready to work with the United States to push a soft landing of the Afghan issue. What does a soft landing mean? I assume that means to let the situation calm down.

    But to let the situation calm down, you need to provide blood transfusion to Afghanistan which relies on a blood transfusion from international donors for the fund. So that is why we in China call for defreezing Afghan liquidity, overseas assets, and lifting unilateral sanctions.

    When Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman visited China, she mentioned about one area of cooperation that is counter-narcotics. That is good because China is also a victim of narcotics and Afghanistan produced some 80% of the world's opium.

    But think about this: if the Taliban doesn't have international assistance, if the Taliban cannot get back the money from American Federal Reserve, then drug is still very important for the survival of this government because they have no other resources. Then China and the United States can't cooperate on counter-narcotics.

    And finally, how could China and the United States promote cooperation among the five permanent members of the UN Security Council? I believe the five permanent members of the UN Security Councils should quickly come into consultation and make explicit requirements over the Taliban for conditions of uplifting sanctions.

    Because this Afghan issue is unlike the Iranian nuclear issue or DPRK nuclear issue, it's much easier to resolve. Why? Because the international community’s requirements on Taliban are the same: to become open, moderate, and inclusive.

    China and Russia’s approach are somewhat different from those of the United States, France, and the UK, but our attitudes are the same because we want the same thing. So if our attitudes are all the same, and the only difference is the approaches, then we can come to discuss.

    For example, could we just lay down clearly what we need the Taliban to do immediately? Could we ask them to have some woman ministers? Could we ask them to let the women go to work or ask the girls to go to school? Because so far all that I heard are mostly things like this. And I believe such things are not so difficult. If you tell the Taliban these are the conditions for you to have money back, I believe immediately they would agree, because these are the things they have promised. So now we should lay down specific conditions for them to honor, and I believe it's possible. Let me stop here. Thank you.

    Bonny :

    Senior Colonel Zhou Bo, thank you very much for your comprehensive remarks, looking not only at why China should be interested in Afghanistan, but also laying out recommendations for what China can do, what the United States can do and what the international community can do. So with that, let me turn the floor to Dr. Seth Jones, and then afterwards we'll go into the rebuttals. So Seth, over to you.

    Seth :

    Thank you very much, Bonnie for moderating this. And thank you very much, Senior Colonel Zhou for those really good comments on what is, as we will talk about over the next 50 minutes or so, a very difficult situation.

    Overall, though, I think there are three main logical and empirical problems with the proposition, and let me treat them. I'll give an overview first and then go into depth on each of them. First, I think the historical record is clear about Afghanistan, and that is that at its core, it is a weak state with a decentralized social political infrastructure. So in a sense, significant foreign influence writ large is almost an oxymoron.

    This is a fallacy, I think, that the British, the Soviets and the Americans really failed in many ways to understand. Second is that because of the weakness of the Afghan state, we talk about the Taliban, but the Taliban’s power and control, as one gets to rural areas of the country, tribal, subtribe, clan areas of the country, Afghanistan has also been, and will likely continue to be at the mercy of multiple regional and global powers that will work with various warlords and strongmen.

    And that is, unfortunately, the reality. So there will continue to be intense competition among all of the major powers in the region: India, Iran, central Asian governments, China, Russia and Pakistan for influence in Afghanistan, which will in many ways work against any kind of stability. And I say this not because this is the way the situation in Afghanistan should be, but simply the way that it is.

    And then third, if there's any state that has influence with the Taliban and in Afghanistan, it's Pakistan. The argument really is that Islamabad in particular holds the vast majority of influence cards in Afghanistan, as it has demonstrated for over 30 years. I'm going to end by unpacking that. And if China has a chance of influence with Afghanistan, my argument will kind of end with: it will be and have to be working by, with and through Pakistan as the main conduit.

    So first of all, Afghanistan is at its core, a weak state with a decentralized socio-political structure, and in that sense, influence is something of an oxymoron. Most Afghans reject a strong central government from actively meddling in their affairs, and I remember having a conversation with a tribal leader down in Kandahar in southern Afghanistan, who told me straight up that my first allegiance is to my family, then to my village, then to my subtribe and finally to my tribe, and he continued by explaining that the government in any meaningful way, and this is just as true a government under Hamid Karzai as under Ashraf Ghani as now under the Taliban, plays little meaningful role in the daily life of most Afghans. So the idea that a foreign country like China, let alone the central government itself, can have a meaningful impact throughout the country.

    I think, is actually fallacious and actually from that standpoint, even from an anthropological standpoint, misunderstands the power structures in Afghanistan. About two thirds of the country of Afghan Pashtuns belong to some combination of the Ghilzai and Durrani Confederations.

    There are smaller elements of the Karlani Confederation in Afghanistan’s eastern and southeastern provinces. But if we look at, say, the Durrani tribes, we've got some pro and anti-Taliban tribes. The Popalzai and Barakzai, for example, have generally been anti-Taliban, some of the Ishakzai and some elements of the Nurzai have generally been pro-Taliban.

    Among the Ghilzai, we've got a number of pro-Taliban tribes such as the Zadran and the Hotaks, and then we have a number of anti-Taliban Ghilzais. We also have a number of ethnic groups in Afghanistan, many of whom have generally not been sympathetic to the Taliban over time, Uzbeks, Tajiks certainly the Shia Hazara and various Turkmen and others.

    The point here is that the power structure in Afghanistan is very decentralized, and so this has two implications for our broader discussion. One is it will continue to be a problem for the Taliban, because when one gets outside of provincial capitals, even some district centers, Taliban power even today is very limited, if not nonexistent.

    So the ability of even the Taliban to influence what's going on in the country is severely limited, and it was during the 1990s and we've seen it with the respective governments in Afghanistan since 9/11. So even the idea that a foreign government, whether it's the British, the Russians, the Americans and now the Chinese, can have significant influence in a country that doesn't even have a strong central government, I think has to be understood.

    Make it to my second issue, which is the weakness of the Afghan state historically has been filled by competition by multiple governments in the region, and I think this works against really the ability to influence, certainly by one major power. So if we look at the countries in the region, all of them have provided some elements of clandestine assistance to both governments, that's the Taliban today, as well as local militia forces, strongmen, power brokers, businessmen.

    The Iranians have had significant influence in western Afghanistan, including in provinces like Herat, the Hazaras in central Afghanistan, as well as a number of what we often call this sort of old northern alliance crowd in the North, some of the Uzbek and Tajik power brokers. India continues to have influence among some of that northern alliance group, those that operate out of northern Afghan provinces and cities such as Mazar, Taloqan, we've seen Indian intelligence agencies for 30 years provide support to substate actors in those areas.

    Central Asian countries, much the same: Tajiks with some of the Tajik community, Uzbekistan with some of the Uzbek communities. In addition, obviously Pakistan has had significant influence with the Taliban and other Pashtun groups operating in parts of eastern, southern and then western Afghanistan as well. So the point here is that we've got a lot of powers that have attempted and will continue to influence Afghanistan. But China is not alone, and with a weak state, there sadly are multiple opportunities for other countries to meddle.

    And this brings me to my final point, really, about the proposition. And I want to sort of lay out some of the challenges I see with the Taliban regime that have little to do with the ability to get access to foreign aid or to get sanctions uplifted. And the third proposition if there's any state that has significant influence, it's not China. As we've seen over the past three decades, it's Pakistan.

    Pakistan has a long relationship with militant groups and other non-state actors operating in Afghanistan. It was Pakistan’s leader, General Zia Ul-Haq, who remarked in 1979 to the head of ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence service, Lieutenant General Akhtar Abdur Rahman Khan, that the water in Afghanistan must boil at the right temperature.

    We repeat that: the water in Afghanistan must boil at the right temperature. This has been a time-honored statement from senior Pakistan leaders, that Afghanistan sits on Pakistan’s border, and without Pakistan influence among Afghan leaders.

    So today the Taliban, there is what senior Pakistan officials said to me when I was in the US government, and even since, talking to senior Pakistan, including ISI leaders, there is a double squeeze on one border, Pakistan has to deal with its long term enmity with India, and on its other border, it has had to deal over the last 20 years with an India that has had close relationships with both President Karzai first and then president Ghani after that. So you see, Pakistan has been caught in a double squeeze for the past 20 years. It has now relief on its western flank. It now has an ally in Kabul that is very important to supporting its strategic depth.

    If we look at the 1980s, and I think history is important, Pakistan’s ISI provided aid to the mujahideen, the seven major mujahedeen groups in cooperation at that point with the US and several other governments. In the 1990s, the ISI helped support the Taliban itself. It was there at the foundation of the Taliban, was involved in helping recruit individuals at Madrasas, both on the Afghan and Pakistan side of the border. The Taliban itself was born as an extremist Islamic movement from both Pakistani and Afghan Madrasas, supported by Pakistan.

    Pakistan has been influential, extraordinarily influential with the Taliban from its very inception as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar in the early 1990s failed to take Kabul, it was ISI help that was pivotal in providing direct support on the ground, forward deployed ISI and Pakistan Air Force operatives as the Taliban pushed into western Afghanistan, into central Afghanistan and eventually into Kabul and the northern Afghan cities. During the 2000s, after the US-led overthrow of the Taliban regime, what did the Taliban do? They relocated where, not into India, not into China, not into central Asia, not in Iran but into Pakistan.

    Their command and control networks, what we call the Rabbari Shura relocated to the areas in and around Quetta in southern Pakistan along the Afghan-Pakistan border. That's where the senior Taliban, the Rabbari Shura, had its primary committees, from its military Committee to its religious Committee, its finance Committee, all located on the Pakistan side of the border, again in and around Quetta, where Taliban senior leaders, first under Mullah Muhammad Omar, then under Mullah Mansour and then under Akhundzada, the current Taliban leader, brought their families who resided in schools. Pakistan ISI operatives continued to provide close assistance to the Taliban over the course of the 2000s, 2010s and even into early 2021. They sat in the senior Rabbari Shura meetings. They provide multiple types of assistance as the Taliban continued its political and military struggle in Afghanistan.

    Pakistan’s ISI provided money that went to Taliban forward deployed forces. They provided intelligence, including Indian activities, intelligence on Afghan government activities, US and others. They provided material, small arms for example. They provided gas and petroleum to Taliban forces for their vehicles, everything from motorcycles to trucks that were used to bring weapons across the border.

    But primarily, I think we've seen the most important avenue of Pakistan influence has been sanctuary and support over time and over three decades of a close relationship. Now that relationship has been important.

    If we look at the Afghan minister of interior right now, from the Haqqani network, Sirajuddin Haqqani, has an interesting long term relationship with both senior Pakistan and ISI officials. He also has a strong historical relationship with al Qaeda, which I’ll come back to in a moment.

    So again, I don't see how anyone could argue anything other than Pakistan’s influence has been paramount over the past 30 years. And even if they're not the ones that will provide the most assistance, they will continue to have the most influence in an organization that they helped create, helped foster, helped support. When no one else in the world did over the past 20 years, everyone else in the world cut off diplomatic relations with the Taliban, Pakistan continued to provide support. So Pakistan, I think, in that sense will retain the most important influence.

    So let me just summarize, and then I want to put a few issues on the table. One is, I think it is important to recognize when we look at Afghans’ anthropological makeup and its history, that at its core it is a weak, what we often call a rentier state, with a decentralized socio-political infrastructure. Foreign influence has always been limited, as has the influence of the central government.

    This will be a problem for the Taliban, as it has been for every central government in Afghanistan for at least the past century. And this is a problem, I think, that if it hasn't dawned on the Chinese and even Pakistan, it should sooner rather than later, because it has been a challenge for the British, been a challenge for the Russians, been a challenge for the Americans. Second, because of the weakness of the state, there will continue to be intense competition from every major power in the region, as well as the Europeans, the US and others outside of that.

    That will continue, and I think it is an inevitable undermining of any central government's power, and it's about realist balance of power competition. Again, I say this not as a normative statement about what the situation should be in Afghanistan, but what it is and what it has been historically. And third, the argument here is that the one state that has been by the Taliban side has provided aid, understands Taliban leaders, has those personal relationships, is Islamabad, and I think that will continue.

    Let me just say a couple other, just very brief remarks about kind of the challenges we face, and then some avenues for US Chinese cooperation. I think the Afghan economy is collapsing for reasons in general that have little to do with the ability to get access to world bank, government or other funding.

    And I think there's some broad challenges just to add to this discussion here, the minister of interior, who I mentioned earlier, Sirajuddin Haqqani, is a designated international terrorist who has longstanding direct ties based on UN security Council multiple reports with al Qaeda. This has been a problem and I think will be a continuing problem for the legitimacy of the Taliban government.

    We've also seen recently a number of multinational companies express deep concern about what is not a transparent or a fair justice system with no clear laws, it's one that's based instead on an extreme interpretation of Islamic law, or sharia; going to be very difficult to create an environment that is supportive or conducive to businesses and foreign direct investment, with an extreme interpretation of sharia that runs the government, and I think we are going to continue to see very serious concerns about foreign companies wanting to operate in a justice system that is barely functioning right now and that cannot transparently mediate disputes.

    If we look at Taliban governance during the 1990s, it was the worst performing government in the world during the 1990s and failed at all categories of world bank governance, corruption, poor governance in a number of areas. So I think there are going to be some big challenges in what the Taliban generally can do. But I do think to end on a positive note, I think there are areas of cooperation that are going to be important for the US and China. And I strongly agree with Senior Colonel Zhou on areas of humanitarian assistance. Afghans are suffering.

    They will continue to suffer. A chunk of it has to do with what it looks like anyway is a poorly functioning Taliban government. But that does not mean that Afghans should suffer without US Chinese and other assistance. That should be support to internally displaced persons, refugees and others.

    That support from the international community is important. There is a continuing need for support to combat counter drug operations. Opium is the largest export commodity of Afghanistan right now, and the Taliban has longstanding drug trade ties, it's their biggest source of income over the past 20 years. There is a need to continue to struggle against drug trafficking, the production, cultivation and trafficking in poppy. And then, finally, there will continue to be a need to counter terrorist groups in Afghanistan and the broader region. Afghanistan is becoming the centerpiece, the epicenter of global terrorism.

    We've seen a resurgence of Islamic state attacks, the Islamic state, Khorasan Province, the local affiliate of the Islamic state, and al Qaeda, as US intelligence has warned, may have external operations capabilities in 2022. In addition, we see a number of groups like Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba operating in Afghanistan as well as, as Senior Colonel Zhou mentioned, extremist Uyghur groups operating in the country. So with a weak government, with a potential failing government, it will be a recipe for safe haven for international and regional terrorist groups. And I think there is a need for cooperation for intelligence sharing and then action against those groups. So there are avenues for common interests and common cooperation, and so with that, I will hand this off to Bonny.

    Bonny :

    Thank you very much, Seth, for an excellent discussion not only of a domestic, decentralized issues within Afghanistan but also the influence of Pakistan, and then also turning to some of the comments that Senior Colonel Zhou recommended. So let me now turn the floor back to Senior Colonel Zhou Bo for any responses, reactions to any of the points that Seth made, or any additional elaboration that you want to make so Senior Colonel Zhou.

    Zhou Bo:

    Thanks, Bonny, and thank you, Dr. Jones. I'm very much happy at the end of your presentation you have talked about how China and the United States might cooperate bilaterally on quite a few fronts, and I'm most happy that you've mentioned intelligence cooperation on counter-terrorism. I think I missed one point. We can also help Afghanistan in cultural protection, as the historical sites. And these kinds of things are not controversial at all, and I believe they would be useful.

    But I do have some disagreements on what you said when you talked about China most probably will influence Afghanistan through Pakistan. No, I don't think so, because you have talked to great lengths about how Pakistan influences Kabul. I agree. Agree. But China can certainly provide a lot of things that Islamabad cannot provide.

    For example, China is a great power, China’s power as one of the P5 countries. When at the political level, be it lifting the sanctions or some other consultations with other four permanent members of the Security Council, this is not something that Pakistan can do to help Afghanistan. And besides, even economically, you see, China can tremendously help Afghanistan.

    As I mentioned before, China is the strongest country in infrastructure building, and China is the largest industrial nation on earth. So on all these fronts, China can help Afghanistan tremendously. But the point is when China helps Afghanistan, China doesn't have its special interests, like taking Afghanistan as a proxy whatsoever, because what makes China different from all the invaders in history is that all these invaders came with the rifle, with bombs.

    And when China comes, China comes with blueprints about road construction, about bridge construction, and who doesn't want good roads, and who doesn't want the bridges? So these things would be invariably welcomed by everybody in Afghanistan.

    But I also disagree with you: If Afghanistan is bankrupted, you argue that it hasn't much to do with international assistance. No, I disagree. And I do believe that the Biden administration has a great moral responsibility. Besides, it will find itself in an extremely difficult situation. If people in Afghanistan are dying and Afghan people's money is in your hands, people can argue safely, they die because of you. Why don't you give back their own money? and you would still prefer to let them die? So that is what I call a second catastrophe that is more consequential than Americans’ withdrawal from Afghanistan. So that is why we need to solve this problem. And time is running out and we have to be quick. Thank you.

    Bonny :

    Thank you Senior colonel Zhou, very passionate analysis, and let me turn to Seth for a quick rebuttals. And then we will move to Q & A.

    Seth :

    Thanks Bonny and thanks Senior Colonel Zhou.

    Well, there's no question that that a range of countries, including China, can provide assistance in Afghanistan. And I think if you look at the history of Afghanistan, even over the last 20 years, we've seen Japan and South Korea, the US, the Europeans, providing assistance.

    That will continue. In many ways, China will provide some assistance. Frankly, we haven't seen China provide significant assistance, certainly not at the levels that we have seen from the US over the past 20 years into the billions of dollars in road construction, but also in various aspects of health.

    I would point out that if we look at a range of indicators over the past 20 years, that Afghan society is still much better off than what it was in the 1990s, that health conditions are notably better from the 1990s.

    Thanks to significant international assistance, education has improved and literacy rates are notably better. So economic, health, education factors have improved dramatically, if you look at both IMF and world bank data, and that's thanks to a range of international assistance, but it also has involved significant amounts of international assistance, and China so far has not been willing to provide anything close to those amounts.

    And I'm not sure it will, which means that if we're going to see Afghanistan continue to at least see a flat lining of key health and education factors, there are two things. One is a range of governments will need to provide some assistance, particularly humanitarian assistance, not just China. And again, I think what we have not seen, we've seen China certainly talk about providing assistance, we haven't seen it do that in the sense of a dollar amounts.

    And second, and I think this is important, there are some huge problems we've already seen with Taliban governance right now that even with international assistance, we've seen a targeted assassinations across Afghanistan, we have seen a serious movement against women and women working. This is going to have a major effect on the economy. We've seen a fundamental shifting away from having any kind of formalized justice system that companies can operate in. This is going to continue to have a problem.

    And then we've seen a Taliban regime that has very close relations, including its minister of interior with a foreign designated terrorist organization, al Qaeda. These are all going to be big problems that aren't going to be fixed. And I think these I do think Senior Colonel Zhou, understate the severe problems that the Taliban faces in governing effectively.

    So that even releasing the international funds that are being held up right now, as we've seen the Afghan government formed, no women in its senior roles, almost no technocrats, we have religious leaders that are running the country with no experience in running any kind of a government in the last 20 years. I mean, if there's any hope for Afghanistan in the future, it's not going to be releasing some international funds. It's going to be building governance capacity right now for the Taliban.

    And as we've seen in Afghanistan, with a weak historical central government, building effective governance is going to be the single biggest challenges. This is not lifting World Bank, IMF, US, European funding. This is going to be building a functioning government system. And I think that's where I see the biggest challenge. And again, you know, at the end of the day, when it comes to influence within a foreign country, I would say it's not about the amount of money that countries provide.

    There's no question that China has the ability to provide more money to Afghanistan than Pakistan. But the reality is that there are deep historical links and deep current links between senior Taliban leaders and Pakistan. That is the reality, that for every single current Taliban leader, where have they lived over the past 20 years? Where have their children grown up? It's been in Pakistan.

    Pakistan has a large Pashtun population that has been supportive of Afghanistan. So I think the reality is that that is the government, Islamabad, that has the trust, the legitimacy, the support, the understanding of the Taliban right now, as poorly functioning as that Taliban government is.

    And that, by far, we saw it in the 1980s, we saw it in the 1990s, we saw it in the 2000s, we've seen for four decades Pakistan’s successful influence in Afghanistan, and I think arguing for anything other than that is to misunderstand the power dynamics both within Afghanistan, within the region, within the Taliban itself. But let me come back again to this issue.

    None of this should distract us from finding avenues for cooperation in Afghanistan. I have argued on the record that it was a mistake for the US to leave Afghanistan. I think it would be a mistake for the US not to provide additional assistance in the future. There are avenues, and there are areas where the US can and should cooperate on humanitarian grounds, counter-narcotics grounds and even counterterrorist grounds, areas of common interest and even some common cooperation with China and obviously other governments in the region as well.

    Bonny :

    Great, thank you , so let me now move this to the Q & A. Let me actually start off with a question for Senior Colonel Zhou Bo. Seth mentioned this earlier, there have been quite a bit of a reporting in terms of the emergence of terrorist groups within Afghanistan, and we're also seeing that ISIS-K is increasingly targeting China. This October, we saw a Uyghur suicide bomber killed 60 people at a mosque in Afghanistan, and this bombing was messaged as intended to punish the Taliban for its cooperation with China.

    Despite Chinese actions against Uyghurs in Xinjiang, I want to get your sense of how this message was received in Beijing, and to what extent might these concerns that if China becomes more involved in Afghanistan, there might be more terrorist retaliation against Beijing? How might that impact Chinese thinking about it's willingness to be involved in Afghanistan.

    Zhou :

    It's a very good question. Well, as I have responded just now, I would also like to give a response to Dr. Jones. It's not a question of how we like the Taliban. It's a question now that they are already in power and no other political forces, like it or not, could overthrow the Taliban. I understand what you said about how strong a relationship Kabul is with Islamabad.

    I do not disagree whatsoever at all. With Bonny's question, yes, we have the ETIM in Afghanistan and that is why we would want them, the Taliban, to curb those anti-China terrorist groups. The possibility of the terrorists getting across the China-Afghan border through the Wakhan corridor is very much limited because the environment is extremely harsh.

    It is steeply and it is very, very difficult for Afghans to get across to the Chinese side from the border. But still, the whole ETIM movement may just spill over into China. So our attitude toward the Afghan government is very clear because this is our top concern for China. Because these terrorist groups are limited in number, actually a few hundred, so Taliban government should have full capability to keep these people under control or even eradicate them.

    Bonny :

    Great, thank you, Senior Colonel Zhou. I see a couple of questions for Seth related to the relationship between Pakistan and China, and maybe I could first address this question to Seth and then Senior Colonel Zhou if you want to jump on this.

    So the general question is, Seth, you argue that Pakistan is likely to be the most powerful external actor on Afghanistan. But many folks in the chat have noted that China has a very strong relationship with Pakistan. So to what extent do you think that Pakistan would be open to cooperating with China on Afghanistan? And to what extent does Pakistan want to preserve its own influence in Afghanistan?

    Seth :

    Well, very good questions, Bonny, and I think this sort of cuts to the heart of what we're talking about. So first of all, Pakistan has its own self-interest, like every country does in providing assistance to the Taliban and operating in Afghanistan. And that gets to the double squeeze that I talked about earlier, strategic depth, that at the end of the day, the Pakistan’s main enemy is India.

    Pakistan and India share a long border and as we have seen over the last 20 years, and my conversations with senior Pakistan officials in the foreign affairs area, in the ministry of defense, in the prime minister's and president's office and then within ISI, is they have been very unhappy about an Afghan government, up until now, that has been supportive and had strategic relations with India.

    So that's obviously changed. The Taliban is an ally of Pakistan, so at the end of the day, I think Pakistan is going to be self-interested to retain support with the Taliban as part of its balancing effort against India.

    However, there are going to be opportunities to cooperate with China. And I think you know, any activity that the Chinese want the Taliban to do, I think in general is going to have to be done by, with and through Pakistan. And I'm not saying that China cannot go directly to Taliban leaders. It can. But if it's going to be successful, it's going to have to work with Pakistan, which is the most important and closest ally and historical friend of the Taliban. We have seen tensions with Pakistan and the Taliban, so it's not like that relationship is perfect. But I’ll tell you, the biggest area of concern.

    I have about the China-Pakistan relationship is going to be that the Taliban, I think, is going to struggle enormously on multiple fronts. Its track record of running a government is very poor, and I know that there are all kinds of certainly hopeful ways that Afghanistan can be useful for Belt & Road initiative.

    The problem, I think, is going to be long-term, that with a weak central government, a weak historical central government, the Taliban is going to have problems dealing with terrorist groups operating on its soil. Its size isn't very large. Afghanistan has a history of having these groups embedded themselves in mountainous areas that are difficult to operate in, in local tribal sub tribe clan populations that may be conducive to those militant groups.

    So I think no Afghan government in the past in the last century has been able to effectively deal with militant groups entirely on its border. That will create tensions, I think, between Beijing and Islamabad when the Taliban is not fully successful in countering these terrorist groups. And again it's a very tall order in a country with a weak state.

    The other problem is the more that we see these governance challenges from the Taliban, and the more we see economic problems, I think the more concerned I have about violence, insurgency and civil war in the country.

    Now the Taliban is able to control the country, for now. So did the previous Afghan government for about a year or two once, things didn't work out particularly well, and we saw corruption problems, governance challenges, economic challenges.

    Then we began to see resistance, and that second point that I mentioned earlier, you better believe, and this is not a normative comment, that this is the way the situation should be, but more a realist comment that this is the way the situation has historically is, you better believe that the Indians will provide assistance to northern alliance groups operating in the country.

    The Iranians will continue to provide assistance to groups in western and central and northern Afghanistan. So there will be aid coming to groups that push back against the Taliban, particularly if there are governance and economics problems. And this is going to make it difficult, I think, for any kind of a long term Belt & Road initiative, with a weak government, it’s going to be hard to establish security, sort of Max weber's concept of security, having a monopoly of violence, of legitimate violence in a territory. That's, I think, the challenge that I see.

    Bonny :

    Thank you Seth. Senior Colonel Zhou, if you want to provide your thoughts on how China may be able to influence Afghanistan through Pakistan, or if you want to argue that China doesn't need to do so. I think you did make that argument. But maybe you could talk a little bit about the China-Pakistan relationship.

    Zhou Bo:

    Well, let me tell you something. Back in the early 1990s, when I first entered my office of military cooperation, the international military cooperation, I received a Pakistani delegation, and I still remember what the defense minister said. He said Pakistani disagree on almost everything except our friendship with China. This, officially speaking, is called the bedrock of their foreign policy, so China won’t have big problems with Pakistan.

    And if Pakistan has a good relationship with Afghanistan, we are happy to see that. An enemy’s enemy is probably a friend, but a friend’s friend is my friend. And actually, I think the international community has some suspicions about the American attitude. That is what is the true motive behind laying down all the conditions?

    If you say, okay, the interior minister must be off the cabinet for us to give you aid, if the girls must go to school, if women must work, these are not big issues. What are the specific, difficult issues that you are raising? So I believe sometimes because the United States just has left Afghanistan in such a humiliating way, you just want to humiliate the Taliban back.

    Otherwise, it cannot be explained. Why would you just say this and that without doing much? Of course, the Taliban has a great problem in governance, but these things could improve. Besides, even if you don't like them, who else could replace them? Yes, there are factions of terrorists and even they have intermarriage, even they are friends, we know all this, but no other political forces can replace the Taliban right now. And because of the impending situation, we need to think about humanitarian assistance to the Afghan people.

    And even if we have the worst situation, for example, what you said to be a civil war, China can still help, because if peacekeeping is required, then China can send the peacekeepers. China has currently about 2500 peacekeepers around the world, and China has 8000 standby troops for peacekeeping. So who can trust the peacekeepers best if the country tends to be Afghanistan?

    Of course, Chinese, because China never invaded Afghanistan. So even in this most unpleasant and unfortunate situation, China can still help Afghanistan. And talking about the Belt & Road. Does it matter if a country doesn't want to join Belt & Road? I think it doesn't matter that much because acceptance of the Belt & Road initiative is just voluntary.

    If India doesn't want to join Belt & Road, that is fine. But I believe Afghanistan wants to join because the Taliban mentioned that. And because, even if we have Belt & Road under developing in Afghanistan, we could still have problems from all these factions, from all these terrorist groups whatsoever, as we have seen in Pakistan. Pakistan is friendly to China, but still, there are such groups such as the “Baluchistan Liberation Army”, where there is sabotage against the Chinese because of different purposes.

    But still, the Pakistan government knows this is a godsend for them over decades, so they have to make sure that these projects would become successful. So who doesn't want to good road? So I'm not excluding all the problems, but I'm what I'm saying is all these problems aside, China’s Belt & Road initiative has still become successful because China is targeting the basic problem, the most fundamental problem in national building. This is about building roads and building good infrastructure. And such kind of good experiences come from China’s own experience since reform and opening up. And it is through building beautiful roads, we are having a better life. Thank you.

    Bonny :

    Thank you, Senior Colonel Zhou. I feel like we could probably go on another hour with a very passionate and very insightful analysis on both sides.

    But in the interest of time, we'll need to wrap up here. I will turn to both Seth as well as Senior Colonel Zhou for a very quick 30 second wrap up of whatever you want to say in terms of your position or what you want folks to take away. So Seth over to you.

    Seth :

    Yeah, let me just end with some comments I think on where both Senior Colonel Zhou and I agree, and that is, we may disagree a bit on the Taliban government, its legitimacy, but I think one area where we strongly agree, and where Chinese US and broader international assistance is going to be important, is to minimize the suffering of the Afghan people.

    They did not choose this Taliban government. There were no elections. It was a government that was seized by military force. You cannot, at the end of the day, blame Afghans anyway.

    So I think in this sense, the suffering that we're seeing right now in Afghanistan, the suffering we're likely to continue to see through a very cold and dark winter, is something that all of us, collectively, the US, China and other countries, can help relieve that suffering of the Afghan people.

    They're the ones who should not be suffering. We're not going to end all of the suffering, but I think we can help provide some assistance to some Afghans to at least mitigate that suffering with food and blankets and medicine and other kinds of aid.

    Zhou :

    Yes, well I can not agree more with what doctor Jones concluded. First of all, I hope this is another new area for China and the United States to cooperate. I forgot to mention that China and the United States have had excellent cooperation in the past on the Afghan issue, we jointly have trained diplomats and technicians. So this is something done in the past. Why don't we continue to do something new?

    The second thing is, yeah, exactly as you have said I believe we should not punish Afghan people because of the Taliban, and we cannot change the fact that the Taliban is in power. But we should not punish Afghan people intentionally or unintentionally. And let's join hands to do something to help these people because the winter is coming.

    Bonny :

    Thank you, thank you both, Seth and senior colonel Zhou, really great positive comments to end on.

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