China’s Man in the Taliban
Why the death of Mullah Omar is bad news for Beijing.
In a July 30 article in the Global Times, a nationalistic Chinese newspaper, an unnamed analyst warns that Mullah Mohammed Omar’s death will deal a heavy blow to the Taliban. But China may prove to be another loser — Mullah Omar had guaranteed crucial agreements with Beijing in the past, and was seen as providing the best chance that any future peace deal between the Taliban and the Afghan government would stick. Despite China’s misgivings about the Taliban, Mullah Omar was a man they could do business with, one of the last of the leading political and spiritual authorities in the militant world that was willing to pragmatically accommodate Chinese concerns for stability in the restive, Muslim-minority northwest Chinese region of Xinjiang.
Beijing’s first concern will be the Afghan peace process. Over the last few years, no country has been a more active and enthusiastic supporter of reconciliation talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government than China. And this is because Chinese officials see a political settlement in Afghanistan as the only surefire way to prevent the country from becoming a safe haven for Uighur militants and a destabilizing force across the wider region. Tensions between the Chinese state, the Han Chinese majority, and the Muslim Uighur population in Xinjiang have continued to grow in recent years, and armed militant opposition groups have long sought refuge in Afghanistan and the Pakistani tribal regions. The tensions, coupled with a worsening series of terrorist attacks emanating from Xinjiang and the roll-out of China’s ambitious new Silk Road investment plans in Central and South Asia, have heightened the imperative for a stable Afghanistan. That a tentative peace process exists at all is partly due to Chinese pressure and incentives, notably in encouraging Pakistan to sponsor the talks rather thanundermining them.
The immediate risk of Mullah Omar’s death, which may have occurred in a Karachi hospital as many as two years ago, is that the nascent process will be derailed. The second round of meetings between the Afghan government and the Taliban, originally planned for the end of July, have now beenpostponed. But even if talks resume, it will be harder for Mullah Omar’s successors to ensure that any agreements hold — whether a short-term cease-fire or a comprehensive deal. Other Taliban factions strongly opposetalks, and Beijing risks being in the position of pushing peace talks — which it placed at the center of its Afghanistan policy — with a wing of the Taliban, rather than with representatives who can carry the broader movement with them...