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Apache attack helicopter approaching in Afghanistan, Septemper 2020. Image by Andre Klimke, available at Unsplash under CC license.

02:59 pm | August 23, 2021

China and the Taliban: Friend and Foe for Thirty Years

Behind China’s overtures to the Taliban in Afghanistan is the cold war of nation states and the absence of ordinary Afghans.

By Li Damao/Initium

Quick Takes:

  • From their very origin, the Afghan Taliban issue was a global problem, while Afghanistan as a country was hollowed out by external and internal political groups.
  • During the Cold War, the United States provided money, China provided arms, and Pakistan provided organization and mobilization for the Mujahideen to support the Afghan anti-Soviet forces.
  • The China-Taliban relationship is ever-changing, and so is China’s counter-terrorism narrative. In the global anti-terror stance, whoever is branded as a terrorist organization is determined by whether this organization is friend or foe.
  • The extreme case of the Taliban and Afghan situation presents the absence of “human beings” in the international great power game.


In May 2021, U.S. and NATO troops started pulling out of Afghanistan. Since then, Taliban forces quickly brought large swathes of territory under their control, including the country’s capital Kabul. The withdrawal of U.S. troops was so embarrassing that a public backlash from the Republican Party is inevitable. In addition, China, Russia and many other countries have criticized the United States for never acting responsibly in their 20 years of deploying troops to Afghanistan and during their final withdrawal, which has led to an international debate on yet another failed attempt to build a democracy.

At the same time, the Taliban are seeking dialogue with the Chinese government while relentlessly pushing closer to the Afghan and Chinese border. In fact, before the withdrawal of U.S. forces, China and Taliban representatives had met numerous times in public and private as early as 2014. Interviewed by This Week in Asia in July 2021, Suhail Shaheen, spokesperson for the Taliban, said he welcomed China’s involvement in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. Immediately afterwards, on the 28th of July, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with one of the Taliban’s founders, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, in a public meeting in Tianjin; given that the Taliban had not yet formally gained power this was a very high-ranking event.

Currently, the mainstream media in mainland China, as represented by the People’s Daily, are fairly restrained in their reporting on the situation in Afghanistan, while being undeniably positive on the progress of the relationship between China and the Taliban. The People’s Daily quoted Wang Yi, stating that “the Taliban in Afghanistan are pivotal military and political actors who are expected to play an important role in the process of peace, reconciliation and reconstruction.” The Global Times, known for their staunch anti-American stance, stressed the phrase “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” and claimed that the “Taliban always have regarded China as a friend” in an editorial titled “Afghanistan reveals the good and the bad between China and the U.S.”

How has terrorism been defined historically? What makes Afghanistan look like a double irony in the framework of international relations between nation-states? To answer these questions, this article will briefly retrace the formation of the Taliban during colonial rule and Cold War rivalry, and will offer an analysis of the evolution of China’s position towards Afghanistan.

Finally, the author will provide a historical perspective on the logic of nation-state action and the challenges posed by non-nation state actors to the institution of nation-states.

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Screenshot of a report by Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People's Republic of China on Wang Yi meeting with head of the Afghan Taliban Political Commission Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar.

The Taliban: A Legacy of Colonial Occupation and the U.S.-Soviet Cold War

It can be said that from the very origin, the Afghan Taliban problem was a global problem, and Afghanistan as a country did not play any important role, or — in other terms — Afghanistan simply was not an effective political subject in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, as it was hollowed out by external and internal political groups alike.

Afghanistan is geographically located in the “Crossroads of Central Asia”. Bordering the Central Asian member states of the former Soviet Union, China, Pakistan and Iran, it is also close to India and the Arabian Sea and can be regarded as the “buffer zone” of the great powers of Asia. The Hindu Kush mountain range divides Afghanistan into a northern and a southern part. The population in the south is mainly composed of Sunni Pashtuns. In addition to binding religious beliefs, the Taliban are a Pashtun armed force that identifies with Pashtun tribal and patriarchal rule. The population in the north is mainly composed of Tajik, Uzbek, Turkmen and Hazara elements. The majority of people in the north, rejecting Taliban rule, formed the “Northern Alliance” to fight against the Taliban, defeating them in 2001.

Due to many commonalities in ethnic composition, language and religious belief, Afghanistan and its five northern neighbors are closely linked to each other, prompting the fear of the Soviet Union that any upheaval in Afghanistan would affect Central Asia, the “softest belly” of the Soviet Union. In addition, the Soviet Union always attempted to assert influence on the countries surrounding the Indian Ocean, especially Iran and Pakistan, with the goal of gaining access to the sea; Afghanistan was a major strategic springboard for these objectives. As a result, the Soviet Union controlled Afghanistan from the 1950s onward as part of its sphere of influence and invaded Afghanistan in the late 1970s, establishing a pro-Soviet government there.

Indirect Soviet rule was detrimental to the Pashtun tribal leaders, warlords and landowners, both large and small, who had long controlled the country. The puppet government, headed by the Tajikized Pashtun Babrak Karmal, caused further discontent among the Pashtun hierarchy. Under the cover of the Hindu Kush, Pashtun warlords stood up and fought the Soviets in guerrilla warfare, while attacking each other for territory. The Soviet Union saw Afghanistan only as a corridor towards the Arabian Sea and was indifferent to the social fabric of this satellite state. The warlords plundered and sold everything they could grasp, including municipal power cabling, bridge girders and road compactors, while ordinary people could barely survive the enduring famine. The annual death rate exceeded 2%, probably the highest in the world at the time.

In order to contain the Soviet Union, the United States massively cultivated traditional anti-Soviet warlords and the emerging Afghan Mujahideen by providing training and funding. China, which at that time was at odds with the Soviet Union, also harbored anti-Soviet aspirations and sold infantry weapons like assault rifles, mines, rockets and anti-aircraft missiles etc. to the Mujahideen. These weapons were shipped to Afghanistan via Pakistan.

"The only correct approach to Afghanistan is to give aid to the resistance forces, and [China and the U.S.] should work together on this. […] We must turn Afghanistan into a quagmire in which the Soviet Union is bogged down for a long time in a guerrilla warfare." - Deng Xiaoping, Jan.08, 1980.


Afghanistan and China-U.S. collaboration during the Cold War

Relevant diplomatic archives in China are not available to the public. However, many Chinese scholars suppose that the Soviet troops’ invasion in Afghanistan in 1979 was perceived by Chinese leaders as evidence of the Soviet Union’s threat to China.

In 1980, Deng Xiaoping said to the then U.S. Secretary of Defense Brown in Beijing: “The only correct approach to Afghanistan is to give aid to the resistance forces, and we should work together on this. (…) We must turn Afghanistan into a quagmire in which the Soviet Union is bogged down for a long time in a guerrilla warfare.” Brown responded: “That is what we intend to do, but we must keep our intentions confidential.”

Back then, this collaboration between China and the United States in the so-called Afghanistan issue was part of China’s strategy of “Uniting with the United States to counterbalance the Soviet Union” (联美制苏). Drawn from the U.S. and Soviet documents, Chinese researchers stated that China sent large quantities of AK-47 rifles, anti-aircraft missiles, and rocket launchers to the Mujahideen during the war through Pakistan and the U.S. CIA, worth an estimated U.S. $2 billion to $4 billion. Furthermore, the PLA provided training and even directly recruited Uyghur citizens in Xinjiang for military training and sent them to Pakistan.

In sum, during the 1980s and 1990s, the United States provided money to the anti-Soviet forces, China provided arms, and Pakistan provided organization and mobilization. Countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt also participated by various means. Within the framework of Cold War mentality, the funding nations may have neither supported nor understood the nation-building goals of the Mujahideen, but their common anti-Soviet stance was sufficient to overcome these and other differences.

Meanwhile, many Afghans fled to Pakistan to save their lives. Pashtuns reside on both sides of the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and there is constant cross-border traffic. The government and civil forces of Pakistan provided a large number of madrasahs to the refugee camps. Most of these madrasahs were schools teaching Sunni fundamentalist Deobandi ideology, a sect founded in India in the 19th century that flowed into Pakistan and Afghanistan in the wake of the partition of India, becoming increasingly radical by absorbing Wahhabi thought from Saudi Arabia and the strict Pashtun tribal system. This ideology inspired the religious students to fight against Soviet rule, and therefore both the United States and pro-U.S. forces in Wahhabite Saudi Arabia supported the establishment of these madrasahs.

On the Pakistani side, the government was pragmatic in its desire to foster a pro-Pakistani Afghan government as a backstop against India. Encouraged by many, the madrasahs on the Pakistani border became incubators for anti-Soviet forces in Afghanistan.

The Taliban, a name which literally means (religious) students, come from exactly these madrasahs, and their members include Afghan refugees and Pakistanis. With support from the United States and China, as well as being helped by Pakistan, they fought their way back into Afghanistan in 1994 by staging a student uprising, initially gaining popularity as they fought both Soviet forces and warlords. But unlike the previous generation of Mujahideen, most of these student soldiers were born in Pakistan and even included some Pakistanis who had become soldiers in order to survive. With only an abstract concept of nation-building in mind, a thorough lack of affection for the land and people of Afghanistan, and a total ignorance of urban life, they returned to Afghanistan establishing a “rule” that was even worse than the warlord occupation. In addition to looting, cleansing and bombing sprees, they established a purely Islamic regime; their total rejection of compromise led to a clash with U.S. interests and gradually they lost U.S. support.

As pointed out in a previous analysis by Initium Media, under the cloud of a new Cold War and the Indo-Pacific Strategy of the United States, it became a priority for the country to withdraw forces from Central Asia as soon as possible and to relocate forces to the Taiwan Strait, the South China Sea and the Pacific. Another analysis points out that while U.S.-India relations have become closer in recent years, Pakistan-Russia relations have also improved. Russia is not against the Taliban seizing power because Taliban control over the north of Afghanistan will likely reduce instability in the neighboring five Central Asian states, thus contributing to Russia’s internal security.

The real change in China’s attitude towards the Taliban came shortly after 9/11 attacks, when in 2002 the Chinese Ministry of Public Security released the first list of officially recognized East Turkestan terrorist organizations and terrorists.


China-Taliban Relations: Many Changes, but Not Surrounding the Taliban

China and Afghanistan are neighbors, but they are only connected via the narrow Wakhan Corridor. Out of security concerns, China has not built a road to the border and is maintaining a cautious — some foreign analysts would say “negative” — stance against a neighbor dubbed as the “Graveyard of Empires.” The “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence” introduced by China in the 1950s have been valid for the major share of Sino-Afghan relations; since 1949, regimes in Afghanistan changed again and again. With the exception of the Soviet-backed Karmal regime, the majority of these regimes were immediately recognized by China. Yet “peaceful coexistence” is not equivalent to passive acceptance; it rather stands for active engagement without direct armed intervention. Not only with legitimate governments, but also with other potentially threatening forces, including the Taliban, in order to ensure whoever is in power and whatever they do, at least they will not be hostile towards China.

Before the onset of the reform and opening-up policy, China had no obvious interests in Afghanistan beyond border security, influenced at best by the increasingly close relationship between China and Pakistan. In the late 1970s, the direct deployment of Soviet armed forces made China concerned to be encircled by the Soviet Union, so while China did not support the Islamic faith, it still supported the anti-Soviet jihad. In international public opinion of the time, “jihad” was still a comparably neutral term, and “terrorism” was not yet tied to Islamist extremism, but was rather associated with the radical left (a term still used in the United States today). In 1981, the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, which had been abolished six years earlier, was hastily reestablished, with soldiers stationed near the border of China, Afghanistan and the surrounding five Central Asian countries. At the same time, China sold weapons to the Mujahideen.

China’s friendly attitude towards anti-government armed forces continued into the Taliban era. In 2021, the close relationship between China and the Taliban caused frustration among many mainland netizens, but those who remember the media coverage of the Taliban in the early 1990s will remember that the first news of the Taliban painted a neutral, even positive picture. The armed force was portrayed as a group of anti-Soviet student soldiers who sought neither power nor personal fame and for whom – through unstoppable and relentless advance - the rotten warlords, their ragtag armies and the remnants of the Soviet Union were no match.

For example, in 1995 Pan Yi and Gong Min wrote an article for the Outlook News Weekly under the title “Uprising”, claiming that the Taliban had “wiped out the warlords and rebuilt the country”, had gained victory against an opponent outnumbering them, had no foreign forces behind them, and their enemies had surrendered without fight. Cui Yansheng's article described the Taliban as “a disciplined and heroic group with a mission to pacify all factions and save the country”, who were popular with the masses. As for the Taliban’s abolishment of entertainment, encouragement of lynching, burning of foreign and non-religious books and banning of women from working and going out, the media dismissed these issues saying that “the Taliban practice Islamic law” and that “all acts considered immoral are forbidden.”

This neutral and even positive portrayal of all actions of the local regime as being in line with the local culture conveyed a strong flavor of post-colonialism as prevalent in the 1990s. At the same time, it was integral to China’s diplomatic principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of various third world countries, an expression of the once popular “sovereignty over human rights.”

It was only when the Taliban, in defiance of everybody, blew up the 1,500-year-old Bamiyan Buddhas (hundreds of Bamiyan refugees were killed at the same time, but little attention was paid to this by international media) and the whole world condemned their deeds, that mainland China’s official media began to change course. China never condemned the actions of the Taliban in public; only a few quotes in the People’s Daily briefly refer to the condemnation by China’s Buddhist circles and the UNESCO.


Taller Buddha of Bamiyan before and after destruction. Image by Tsui and Carl Montgomery available at Wikimedia Commons under CC license.

Subsequently, the September 11 attacks revealed the relationship between the Taliban and Al-Qaida. The mastermind of Al-Qaida, Osama Bin Laden, had formerly been a Taliban member and was sheltered by the Taliban after the attacks. At this time, relations between the United States and China had already reached a freezing point due to a series of incidents such as the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999 and the China-U.S. aircraft collision incident in 2001. Chinese official media first adopted an attitude of watching the fire from across the river, and although they would not comment positively on Al-Qaida, they were happy to see someone punish the arrogant imperialists and “teach the United States a lesson,” yet were slow to react to cooperation towards counter-terrorism efforts. Public opinion went a step further and hailed the Taliban as anti-American heroes.

East Turkistan

East Turkistan, as many researchers point out, is “a rather vague geographic designation” and deeply connected with political, ethnical and cultural controversies. The term emerged among Russian scholars in the 19th century, referring to the Tarim Basin. In the early 20th century, the region became the subject of “The Great Game” rivalries between China, Russia and Britain. In the 1930s and 1940s, two different states of “Eastern Turkistan Republics” briefly occurred there, before the CCP took power in China in 1949 and established the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in 1955.

According to the renowned anthropologist Dru Gladney, different Uyghur organizations in Xinjiang were encouraged by the independence of Central Asia Republics after the downfall of the Soviet Union and hoped to form an independent East Turkestan. Meanwhile China banned the term and mobilized the United States and the United Nations to include the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) group as a terrorist organization in 2002.

The real change in China’s attitude towards the Taliban came shortly afterwards, when in 2002 the Chinese Ministry of Public Security released the first list of officially recognized East Turkestan terrorist organizations and terrorists. According to Chinese investigations, the “East Turkestan Islamic Movement” and the “East Turkestan Liberation Organization” were trained in Afghanistan with the help of the Taliban from the 1990s to 2001. China has, in any case, recognized the transnational nature of the Taliban, its potential threat to the Chinese regime, and the failure of the traditional nation-state only strategy in the face of terrorism; thus formally linking its own terrorist/separatist forces to the Taliban/Afghan situation, and to the wider problems of the Islamic world.

In international affairs, China has actively promoted “anti-terror diplomacy.” China agreed to join the international anti-terrorism coalition and provided logistical support to the U.S. War on Terror in return for the United States officially recognizing the East Turkistan Islamic Movement Movement as a terrorist organization on the first anniversary of the September 11 attacks in 2002 (a recognition the United States later revoked in 2020). This diplomatic achievement was publicly confirmed by a Foreign Ministry spokesperson the following day. At the same time, China established anti-terror cooperation links with the five Central Asian countries (via the then recently founded Shanghai Cooperation Organization or SCO) as well as Russia, Egypt and even India. Even though these countries previously had conflicting interests in Afghanistan, and most of them had been involved in fostering local armed forces in Afghanistan that are undeniably linked to the current situation, they now have a common core demand: hope that the civil war in Afghanistan will not spill over into their territories and the Taliban will not export anti-government armed forces to neighboring countries. With regard to its long-time strategic ally Pakistan, China has stated multiple times that a precondition to its assistance is that Pakistan will not support East Turkestan.

In its propaganda, China stresses that defeating East Turkestan and separatism are important elements of counter-terrorism, and blames the United States for upholding “double standards,” demanding that “the erroneous policy of Western countries during the Cold War that ‘terrorists in one country are freedom fighters in another country’ should be abolished.” China insists that “terrorists in one country are terrorists in all countries”, and that “under no circumstances any terrorist, especially separatist terrorists and religious extremists, should be allowed to claim political asylum and refugee status in order to escape legal sanctions.”

Friend or Foe?

It is true that the United States was ambiguous and variable in its stance on terrorist actions in other countries, but up until the 1980s Chinese propaganda also conformed with Cold War ideology “promoted by the West”: similar types of force were branded as terrorist if led by opposing states, and as legitimate struggle if led by “brothers in Asia, Africa and Latin America.” For example, in 1982, during the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the People’s Daily published an article titled “Who are the terrorists?”, stating: “It is a complete vilification for Begin to describe the Palestine Liberation Organization, which is fighting for the survival of the nation, as a terrorist organization. (...) They fight an unyielding struggle for the return of millions of fellow citizens who have been displaced and live in misery. What, if any, is the crime?”

At the same time, the notion that “terrorism approaches on China” became the dominant tune of reports on terrorism, and the heinous attacks on Chinese citizens in Afghanistan received a great deal of attention. The Taliban’s media image changed from that of the young, elite, invincible student soldier to that of a murderous devil toting a submachine gun in his left hand and a human head in his right; their image rapidly merged with that of the East Turkestan movement members after the July 2009 Urumqi riots. Children recruited as human bombs, women flogged and stoned, men robbed and hanged, foreigners abducted for ransom — all these cruelties were exposed, and the issue of human rights in Afghanistan fell under renewed scrutiny. These blatant violations of human rights happened over and over again, and a review is absolutely necessary, but considering the Taliban have long shown their claws and teeth, and despite their temporary loss of control over the whole of Afghanistan, a trial is undoubtedly long overdue.

Another common voice in the mainland media was that “terrorism is the United States lifting a stone just to drop it on its own feet”, tying the resurgence of terrorism to the United States. This very pungent criticism was once endorsed by the official media (see the 2005 commentary “Who is the teacher of ‘terrorism’?” in the Study Times, the newspaper of the Central Party School) and has become common knowledge among military enthusiasts and those concerned with international relations. This statement is certainly true, but not the whole truth. Despite calls for an end to interference in Afghanistan for most of the 20th century and throughout the 21st century, none of Afghanistan’s neighbors have actually been involved in the country’s internal affairs.

On a more delicate note, despite the fact that the Taliban significantly threaten the interests of the United States and China alike, and also fit both countries’ respective definitions of terrorism, (see Chinses definition published by the Ministry of Public Security and U.S. definition by United States Code) neither country has actually included the Taliban on its list of terrorist organizations. On the U.S. side, this was mainly due to the narrow focus on the apparently anti-American Al-Qaida, in contrast to the Taliban, whose objective was mainly understood as to establish a state. As long as the Taliban handed over members of Al-Qaida, and given that the Soviet Union had long disintegrated, the interior situation in Afghanistan simply did not seem to be worth any attention. On the other hand, U.S. law does not allow governments to conduct negotiations with terrorist organizations; thus the Taliban were not listed as a terrorist organization in order to facilitate negotiations.

Before May, public opinion in the mainland always followed the same anti-terror stance established in and popular since 2002, which saw the Taliban as terrorists. But in the current, hot anti-American mood, more and more people on social media openly state that the Taliban are the true representative of the Afghan people and friends of China.


China, on the other hand, has made it clear that it only recognizes terrorist groups targeting China. With the growth of China’s international trade volume in the 21st century and China’s Belt and Road Initiative, China’s interests in Afghanistan have gradually grown beyond mere counter-terrorism and security, making the possibility of cooperation with the Taliban increasingly clear. Various statistics show that China is the largest donor and investor in Afghanistan, having pledged US $150 million in aid to Afghanistan over five years in 2002, and Chinese companies having invested in the world’s second largest copper mine, the Aynak copper mine, the Amu Darya oil exploration in Afghanistan in 2008 and 2011 respectively, and, to a lesser extent, in infrastructure. In 2018, China facilitated the establishment of the China-Afghanistan Economic Community (CAEC), which constitutes a platform for private commercial cooperation and trading of goods and materials.

However, chaos in Afghanistan has prevented further capital injections from the Chinese government and companies. With increasing cases of killings and kidnappings of Chinese personnel, this chaos is a significant threat to the security of existing projects and causes endless delays to the ongoing copper project. China and the legitimate government of Afghanistan have had numerous exchanges on behalf of a multitude of projects in the hope of taking the China-Pakistan cooperation model as a blueprint, but due to security threats and infrastructure destruction, all work is at a complete standstill.

With regard to the rich mineral resources of Afghanistan – notably copper, coal, natural gas, lead and mercury – China clearly has a motive to expect a more stable investment environment and unimpeded transport across the country. Under warlord rule, Afghanistan could neither provide stability nor free access, and the Afghan government was equally incapable after the loss of U.S. military support. Against this backdrop, it seemed to China to be a wise choice to engage with the Taliban. Of course, the Taliban had already occupied most parts of Afghan territory by August 2021, and early contacts with the Taliban were to ensure that the new government would not be too hostile towards China. Mainland official media emphasized time and again: the Taliban of Afghanistan cannot be compared to the Taliban of Pakistan, as the former are not part of a terrorist organization while the latter are. The main reason is that the Taliban of Afghanistan are not interested in establishing a regime outside the borders of Afghanistan, while the Pakistani Taliban have the ambition to establish a transnational Islamist regime, which is not only a threat to Pakistan as a strategic partner of China, but also to China itself.

Thus, in order to understand the considerable shift in China-Taliban relations and propaganda, it must be clear that in a seemingly unanimous global anti-terror stance, “terrorism” as a concern to China and other countries has obvious connotations. In practical terms, whoever is branded as a terrorist organization is not determined by that organization’s assaults on non-military targets, but is rather determined by whether this organization is friend or foe.

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Screenshot of the Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying’s Regular Press Conference on August 16, 2021, stating that “China respects the Afghan people's wishes and choices.”

Since May, Chinese netizens have made some interesting comments. Before May, public opinion in the mainland always followed the same anti-terror stance established in and popular since 2002, which saw the Taliban as terrorists. But in the current, hot anti-American mood, more and more people on social media openly state that the Taliban are the true representative of the Afghan people and friends of China. These comments by Chinese netizens are entirely based on the attitude of the Taliban towards China, and they are fully in line with the claim of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that the Taliban of Afghanistan are not a terrorist organization, while the Taliban of Pakistan indeed are a terrorist organization. The real attitude of the Taliban towards Chinese citizens has obviously played no role in shaping this public opinion.

A Double Irony: The Bitter Fruit of Self-Inflicted Harm

With the situation in Afghanistan rapidly deteriorating, China is uncertain about its next move. On the 6th of August 2021, nine days after the meeting with the Taliban leader, Cheng Guoping, Commissioner for Foreign Security Affairs of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, met with the Ambassador of the legitimate government of Afghanistan in China to exchange views on “cooperation in security and counter-terrorism.” Since then, China has not made any official statements concerning the situation in Afghanistan until the Taliban reached Kabul. Not only China, but other countries were also ambivalent in their statements. In July, after having received reassurances by the Taliban that they “would not interfere in the five Central Asian countries,” Russia explained its intention to “improve relations with Taliban Afghanistan.” Yet, it also sent four bombers to the border area as a warning and conducted a joint large-scale military exercise with China, meant as a show of force. In addition, as soon as the Iranian government realized that the Taliban, which it previously had staunchly opposed, could seize political power it changed its attitude and promoted peace talks between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban, and propagated that the Taliban would “not harm Shia Muslims.” Moreover, the United States sent the bombers it had already withdrawn back to Afghanistan, ready to conduct large-scale air strikes.

From the historical review above we can see that this decidedly embarrassing hesitation and shaky approach has occurred at every moment since the formation of the Taliban, only to become more cynical as the true nature of the Taliban has become clearer and their power has increased.

In the past, national policies in Afghanistan were based on the security interests of nation-states, a structure of interests that was both a product of the U.S.-Soviet rivalry during the Cold War, and a continuation of the “friend-or-foe” logic of the Cold War and its subsequent world order, dominated by powerful nation-states. The United States helped the Taliban in order to contain the Soviet Union; China accepted the Taliban initially as a deterrent to the Soviet Union, but was later prompted to do so by a consideration to balance U.S. power; Saudi Arabia’s support for the Taliban is a scheme to cater to the United States and to oppose Iran; and finally, Pakistan helped the Taliban in order to keep India down. The history of these relations makes it abundantly clear that current international politics is based on the logic that “if you are not my friend, you are my enemy; but there is no such thing as an everlasting enemy or friend, only everlasting interests.”

However, these countries have since invariably met with fire from the Taliban and other organizations cultivated by them. Pakistan, the country providing the most generous aid to the Taliban in Afghanistan, has been hit the worst. Not only was the former Prime Minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto, assassinated, but numerous other government leaders also fell victim to assassinations.

As of today, many countries are again following the friend-or-foe logic to reshuffle their relations with the Taliban, but in comparison to the last 30 years, uncertainty has increased dramatically. Even though the objective of the Taliban is to establish an Islamic state, this ideal – which to a large extent is a remnant of the post-World War I wave of nationalism in Western and Central Asia – does not bring forth nation-states, only increasing uncertainty. The Taliban of Afghanistan and similar organizations (Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan and ISIS being the most prominent) completely lack the incorporation of a nation-state, but act in terms of transnational units of ethnicities, religious belief and tribes. There are no stable economic interests, no foreign relations, no population under control, no social responsibilities (or burdens), and no borders with nation-states. Once struck by an iron fist, these organizations will rapidly break up and disperse into neighboring countries. They lack a body that can be fought or threatened, yet fail to substitute “Afghanistan”, which is so sought after by all countries, nor can they be integrated into the system of nation-states.

It is for this reason that the situation in Afghanistan is a “creative” replication of the common 20th and 21st century national diplomatic narrative of “picking up stones and throwing them at one’s own feet” at the hand of non-national state forces. The logic of the nation-state is challenged, but not shaken. Instead, terrorist groups and other transnational forces challenge the nation-state and are simultaneously absorbed as pawns in the game of the nation-state. All too often we see that nation-states exploit the power of non-nation states to weaken each other, while non-nation state actors rely on nation-state rivalries to strengthen their own power, following the logic of the parable “when the snipe and the clam grapple, it is the fisherman who profits.” In the eyes of many military enthusiasts, this game has so far been quite appealing and not unreasonable. In the dark forest of Afghanistan, the great power game is as devoid of justice as Rashomon.

The cruel reality is that from the point of view of nation-states, one can only see nation-states. So many nations are concerned about Afghanistan, but no country is concerned about Afghans. It is only within the framework of sovereignty that the other levels, from transnational terrorist organizations to ordinary communities, associations and individuals, become visible and meaningful.


If it is ironic that the rules of the nation-state game are challenged by non-nation-states, the attempts by nation-states to incorporate non-nation-states into the rules of their own great power game are accompanied by an even more painful irony: The nation-state becomes the only unit in the political imagination, the interest of the nation-state the only criterion in the game, and non-nation-states only have instrumental value when they can weaken/strengthen the power of a nation-state. Any units outside/under the nation-state are not evaluated for their behavior and their demands are ignored.

One answer to a question recently posted on the Chinese platform Zhihu, “Why is there a tendency for some online opinions to support the Taliban recently?” reveals the logic of this dramatic change in thinking: “Many Chinese hate terrorism and hate the United States, but love the terrorism against the United States.”

At the same time, there are many in the United States who believe that withdrawing from Afghanistan would be a wise move to concentrate efforts on Taiwan to contain China. The headline of a Bloomberg comment is representative: “Pulling out of Afghanistan won’t be a disaster (except for the Afghans). Abandoning Taiwan would be a monumental error.” Everything happens in Afghanistan, but the safety concerns of Afghans only appear in brackets.

What is in the offing for Afghans? Although all countries involved say it is not yet clear, the answer was  already given by the Taliban before 2001. True, the Taliban have just stated that “women will be allowed to go to school and work,” but such verbal assurances were given many times in the 1990s, each time citing a “lack of infrastructure in Afghanistan to guarantee women’s safety” as the reason for their reversal.

The situation is even more precarious for the 60% non-Pashtun population of Afghanistan, especially for the Shia Muslims who amount to at least 10% of the population. According to non-exhaustive statistics of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, already 2.5 million Afghans have been displaced since the start of the Taliban offensive at the end of May, and 80% of the displaced persons are women and children, a number which still grows exponentially. The raging of war brought agricultural activity to a near-total standstill, and at present half of the children in Afghanistan are suffering from severe malnutrition. The tragedy does not end here, during their last reign, the Taliban had a track record of slaughtering civilians in occupied cities. This time, even though they seem more concerned about their international public image, there are already numerous accounts of bombings against Afghans who cooperated with the government, Shia Muslims and schoolgirls.

The Taliban do not deliberately avoid civilian targets in combat, and it is impossible to count the number of people who have died in the streets. Many Afghans are appealing to the international community through the media to pay attention to the unfolding humanitarian disaster in Afghanistan. The United Nations call on all countries to exert pressure on the Taliban and open their borders for refugees. As a first response and in anticipation of coming waves of refugees, countries like Austria, Germany, Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands and Greece immediately tightened their immigration policy, sometimes even starting to expel Afghan refugees already in the country.

The cruel reality is that from the point of view of nation-states, one can only see nation-states. So many nations are concerned about Afghanistan, but no country is concerned about Afghans.

It is only within the framework of sovereignty that the other levels, from transnational terrorist organizations to ordinary communities, associations and individuals, become visible and meaningful. The nation-state is essentially the only political subject that can deploy troops to intervene in other countries in order to bravely defend its own rights, yet it also has the virtue not to interfere out of respect for the political sovereign power of the other, and it displays prudence not to break the rules of the game. This bravery, virtue and prudence can only exist between nation-states, while individuals are not related to these values. They are only worth protecting as part of the population, property and productivity, but are also subject of deliberate harm and manipulation because they are owned by the nation-state.

The extreme case of the Taliban presents the absence of human beings in international politics in a most cynical and disastrous way, and in fact in the struggle for a personalized state, the absence of human considerations is present in every moment of the great power game.


And the ordinary people of Afghanistan, they apparently do not belong to any country at the moment — as most of the rulers of the century, like the Taliban, have plundered and erratically occupied this land, the people have never enjoyed the framework of a sovereign nation-state, have never become a productive population or politically entitled citizens, and therefore have rarely ever been important or visible enough to be considered useful for foreign and domestic powers. The warlords, the Soviets and U.S. troops all show a profound indifference towards ordinary Afghans who do not bear arms. The Taliban are even worse. Deprivation of food happens every day, attacks on non-military targets happen every day because they are not the population of the Taliban, neither are they the population of the United States, nor are they the population of China. They are not the population of anyone.

In a final analysis, no matter how dynamic the situation in Afghanistan is and no matter how heated the “you are out and I am in” contest is, there are no ordinary persons on the battleground, but only personified countries like the United States, China, Pakistan and Russia with their simplistic temporary interests. The purpose of this personification is precisely to erase specific people and their interests that cannot be framed into great power politics — even in this globalized economy, their daily life is of no concern for the abundance of hostilities and alliances.

The extreme case of the Taliban presents the absence of human beings in international politics in a most cynical and disastrous way, and in fact in the struggle for a personalized state, the absence of human considerations is present in every moment of the great power game. When talking about international politics and evaluating the gains and failures of China and the United States in the Afghan storm, we need to keep reminding ourselves: Which role do China, the United States, Russia and notably the Afghan people play? What are their gains in this great power game? How will they be affected in the future? What is the essential difference between being part of the population of a sovereign state and being an Afghan expelled from the sovereign world?


We thank Initium Media for sharing this insightful analysis with Echowall. The original version in Chinese can be found at . The English version is translated by Echowall with slight re-editing (updates and addition of background information in text boxes).

August 23, 2021
Li Damao/Initium

Li Damao is an independent researcher focuses on contemporary Chinese nationalism.