Afghanistan’s 20-year conflict with the US has left a power vacuum eagerly awaited by another global power.

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Afghanistan’s neighbors are ready to take advantage of the Taliban’s retaking power in a nation known to house al-Qaeda, the terrorist organization responsible for the 9/11 attacks.

The landlocked country is surrounded by China to the east, Iran to the west, and Russia to the north. Three Anglo-Afghan Wars in the 19th and early 20th centuries failed to expand British authority over Afghanistan and counter Russian expansion. In 1989, after a humiliating loss, the former Soviet Union invaded and controlled the nation for ten years.

Iranian relations have improved since the Taliban murdered 10 Iranian diplomats in 1998, and Iran is one of Afghanistan’s main trade partners. China sees an opportunity to exploit valuable oil and gas projects that have been halted or delayed due to security, infrastructural, and technical problems. Copper, iron, lithium, and rare earth are among the minerals estimated to be worth $1 trillion. Beijing has announced $31 million in emergency assistance for the Taliban, including 3 million covid-19 vaccination pills.

The three nations fear that the US departure would cause regional instability and ensnare them in Afghan domestic issues. They fear terrorism re-emerging under Taliban cover. The nation is the world’s most dangerous for terrorism, with IS and Al Qaeda both present.

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China is concerned about radicalism spreading into Xinjiang, where hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs and mainly Muslim ethnic minorities are imprisoned. Beijing has urged the Taliban to break with terrorists. In 2009, 140 Muslim Uyghurs and Han Chinese were murdered and hundreds wounded in Xinjiang. As a result of this event, Beijing covets Afghanistan’s mineral wealth, which may not be as wealthy as previously thought.

The $900 billion Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) expands trade and investment routes between China and its neighbors. A network of overland road and rail links and oil and gas pipelines are planned to run along the main Eurasian land bridges, including China-Mongolia-Russia, China-Central, and West Asia, the China-Indochina peninsula. They will extend from Xi’an in Central China to Moscow, Rotterdam, and Venice.

South and Southeast Asia to East Africa and the northern Mediterranean Sea are the “Road(s)” of ports and coastal infrastructure developments. The plan is for participating nations to fund Chinese state-owned infrastructure companies. Less fortunate people are given low-cost loans and credit. It’s like banks giving low-income households zero-percent mortgages.

Afghanistan, therefore, has enormous economic and geopolitical importance in China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Western institutional investors would naturally avoid the country, especially now that the Taliban is back in power.

Notably, China has previously waded into Afghanistan’s tumultuous seas in search of minerals. In 2007, China’s state-owned Metallurgical Corp won a nearly $3 billion contract to construct Mes Agnak in Kabul, the country’s biggest copper mine.

However, the project has yet to be completed due to security concerns and the discovery of historical relics. The Hajigak iron ore project, the only other possibility for a mine, has likewise failed.

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