Recently a Taliban delegation visited China and met the top diplomatic leadership of China. They discussed diverse issues ranging from economic cooperation to terrorism. The Taliban leadership assured China that their government in Afghanistan will cooperate with China to eliminate any type of extremism; they will not allow any extremist group to work from the soil of Afghanistan against China, ensuring that the China border is safe.
This is a huge development and bodes well for bilateral relations since China was looking for such assurance for some time, especially in the context of Xinjiang.
However, there is a need to cement this relationship. China will have to work with Taliban in multiple dimensions to strengthen their ties. The prime area of engagement should be economic linkages for the uplift of the economic situation and the wellbeing of people. Afghanistan is in dire need of economic opportunities to kick start the rehabilitation process. The starting point of cooperation must be capacity building and skill development. Undoubtedly, capacity is a serious issue and Afghanistan needs comprehensive programs for improving the situation. Skill development is another area which requires urgent attention; it is a chronic problem but, with the takeover of Taliban, it has become more apparent. Taliban do not have the required skills, which can be employed in the economic activities and modern industry. Thus, capacity and skills should be prioritized.
Xinjiang province can take the lead in imparting training to Afghanistan. It will be an excellent avenue to start the program since Xinjiang has education centers which are already engaged in training programs of Muslims. These centers have all the required instruments to impart training. These institutions also have experience in working with the less educated sections of the society, as well as religiously motivated people and know how to harness their energies for productive and economic activities. This experience can be used to train the Afghan people. For that purpose, China will have to select different provinces of Afghanistan and declare them sister provinces of Xinjiang. It will be a win-win cooperation which will be mutually beneficial.
Taliban will benefit through enhanced capacity and skills of their work force: they are looking towards any such initiative which can train their work force for economic activities. Afghanistan has a high incidence of poverty, hence tackling this issue will improve the living standards of people.
This will also prove to be beneficial for China. It will help to mitigate propaganda against Xinjiang and the education institutes of Xinjiang. The West is running a comprehensive campaign against Xinjiang and is trying to use Uyghur Muslims against China even branding the education centers of Xinjiang as concentration camps They have also deployed international organizations to exploit the situation. Hence, the engagement of Taliban for capacity building in these education centers or sub-campus of these institutions in Afghanistan will help China to mitigate this propaganda.
Second, China should build joint venture programs for Xinjiang and Afghanistan. China should start to encourage the private sector from China to invest in these joint ventures. Joint ventures should employ the Afghan people who have been trained in the education centers of Xinjiang. These companies should also establish industry in Afghanistan since it is rich in minerals. Afghanistan also has huge reserves of rare earth metals and there are estimates that it holds about US$ 1 trillion reserves of rare earth metals. Rare earth metals are in big demand due to their role in modern technologies. Unfortunately, Afghanistan lacks the sophisticated industrial infrastructure to benefit from the mineral assets. Thus, investment in mineral exploration and allied industry will be helpful to create multidimensional opportunities for Afghanistan.
Third, Afghan youth needs help, because they are facing multifaceted problems. The continuous wars and conflicts have impacted the education system, especially in rural areas. Thousands of children could not attend educational institutes. The youth do not have the skills which can be applied in modern industry. Most of them are unskilled and engaged in less developed or rewarding sectors which has resulted in low job security. Food insecurity is another issue which is haunting the youth. They also have less connectivity and knowledge of global dynamics, especially in rural areas.
China should launch specialized programs for Afghan youth in two areas, 1) education and 2) skill development. Education is a long-term program and requires more resources and time. Skill development program can be initiated on urgent basis by using the facilities of Xinjiang. China can establish sub-campus of Xinjiang institutions in Afghanistan. Afghanistan needs these institutions, but rural areas are in special need of these institutions. China and Pakistan can also pilot the program in Pakistan in the refugee camps. The successful execution of the pilot will help refugees to go back and play a constructive role. It will create huge respect for China, especially among the youth in Afghanistan.
Besides, there should also be tri-lateral dialogue forum for youth from China, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. It should be built like tri-lateral dialogue at foreign ministers’ level. The youth program should be steered and managed by youth. Senior citizens’ role should only be advisory. Capacity and skill development should be the prime areas of focus and given required resources. It will empower the youth and create a cadre of future leaders. The secretariate of this forum should be established in Xinjiang.
However, China will need to avoid the contracting the skill development programs to so called NGOs. Private sector should be engaged, but on two conditionalities. Private sector must share resources and contribute financially. There should be a contract through which it will ensure that private sector will hire the certain number of trained individuals.
In conclusion, no political strings should be attached with these interventions. The Afghan people should be left to decide their own future, according to their own values and system of governance. This will help China to cultivate status of friend, not master.
The writer is a political economist.