The Taliban is now controlling 85 per cent of Afghanistan territory, an official from the group said on Friday, amid ongoing military advances that saw the group routing much of the northern provinces near China’s borders.
The Afghan government dismissed the Taliban claim as a propaganda stunt.
Three Taliban officials are visiting Moscow to discuss Russia’s concerns over the possibility of extremist groups seeping across the borders to central Asian countries.
The rapid victories the Taliban achieved recently came amid efforts by the US and its allies such as the UK to speed up the withdrawal of troops from key strategic positions.
And as it grows as the most powerful group in Afghanistan, the Taliban looks eager at striking long-term partnerships with and woo powerful neighbours, especially China.
The Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen said that it sees China as a “friend” and wanted to attract Chinese investments as part of reconstructing the war-torn country “as soon as possible”.
“We welcome them. If they have investments of course we ensure their safety. Their safety is very important for us,” he told This Week in Asia.
But Beijing seems worried about the deteriorating security situation in the neighbouring country and the possibility of seeing disorder slipping into China across the borders.
On Friday, Taliban local officials in Afghanistan told Reuters that the group’s fighters had taken Torghundi, a town near the border with Turkmenistan, where tens of thousands of the Hazara Shia minority live. Taliban rapid advances prompted hundreds of Afghan police, intelligence officials, and refugees to flee to Turkmenistan and Iran.
Last month, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said the escalation of violence in Afghanistan was due to the US “abrupt” announcement of withdrawal of troops. Analysts say similar statements coming out of Beijing expose the deep anxiety over Afghanistan becoming a safe haven for Uyghurs separatist groups who would compose a direct threat to China’s security.
But Mr Shaheen said his group would not allow any Uyghur fighters in the country in a bid to allay China’s concerns. He also confirmed that a future Afghanistan would not harbour al-Qaeda elements, a pledge that has been central to the group’s Doha peace deal with the US in February 2020.
Last week, US forces quietly left the Bagram airbase, effectively ending the US “forever war”, which lasted for 20 years since the US and its allies invaded Afghanistan in 2001 after the 9/11 attacks. The Pentagon said 90 per cent of the forces have already left Afghanistan. President Biden has set 31 August as a deadline to complete the drawdown.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on Thursday that the rest of the British forces had also left Afghanistan. Nick Carter, Britain’s Chief of the Defence Staff, said it was “plausible” that the state in Afghanistan would collapse without the presence of international forces. Last week, the commander of US troops in Afghanistan, General Austin Miller, warned that the country might fall in to civil war.
The US and Nato withdrawal with such a speed exacerbated China’s concerns over a possible security vacuum after decades of relying on the US and its allies to shoulder security across its borders with Afghanistan.
China has maintained diplomatic ties with the Taliban for years and reportedly sought promises that the group would guarantee border security in exchange for investments and infrastructure projects in areas under Taliban control. In September 2019, a Taliban delegation visited Beijing and met with senior Chinese diplomats to discuss peace talks with the US and rooting out Uyghur militants in Afghanistan.
Last month, China’s foreign minister Wang Yi told his Afghan and Pakistani counterparts that Beijing is planning to substantially expand the Belt and Road Initiative projects, President Xi Jinping’s foreign policy blueprint, in Afghanistan, in a bid to increase its influence in the country.