After the Kabul Hotel Attack: The Taliban and China Confront Security Challenges in Afghanistan
Publication: China Brief Volume: 23 Issue: 1
On December 12, members of the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) attacked a local hotel in Kabul, where several Chinese nationals were staying. The attack injured five Chinese nationals along with 18 other victims, while the three attackers were killed by security forces (China Daily, December 14, 2022). It was reported that Chinese businesspeople run the hotel, which is frequently visited by Chinese diplomats and business people (Global Times, December 13, 2022). In response, People’s Republic of China (PRC) Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin stated: “China is deeply shocked at the attack, which is highly egregious, and firmly opposes terrorism in any form” (China Daily, December 14, 2022).
The ISKP strike in Kabul will further reinforce Beijing’s commitment to giving special attention to the security and stability of Afghanistan. An unstable and volatile Afghanistan threatens Chinese interests and could be a hurdle to the success of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Moreover, Chinese sources have expressed concern that uncertainty and unrest could lead to Afghanistan becoming a hotbed for terrorists “targeting China’s Xinjiang and its interests overseas, such as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) projects, where enhanced communication and coordination between China and Pakistan is required to tackle potential threats” (Global Times, August 19, 2021). In response to these challenges, China has sought to provide the Taliban with enough support to combat all forms of terrorism and extremism in Afghanistan.
Following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the fall of Kabul, ISIS has emerged as one of the main threats to the Taliban government, ethnic minorities, especially the Hazara community and foreign nationals, including Chinese nationals and business interests (China Brief, October 4, 2022). After the withdrawal, the U.S. offered the Taliban assistance in combating ISIS, but the group declined, stating that they could handle the issue. However, the ISIS threat does not seem to be under control in Afghanistan and has now become a headache for the Taliban.
Drivers of China-Taliban Engagement
Several factors have recently driven China to deepen its engagement with and support for the Taliban. When Kabul fell to the Taliban, the world was stunned and concerned about the Taliban in power; however, some countries like Iran, Russia, China, and Pakistan were among those expecting stability in Afghanistan and asking the international community to help the Taliban stabilize the country. At the time, the PRC envoy stated that “China expects the Taliban to fulfill its commitment to ensure a smooth transition of the situation in Afghanistan, curb all kinds of terrorism and criminal acts, keep the Afghan people away from wars and rebuild their beautiful homeland,” stated response to the Taliban takeover of Kabul (Xinhuanet, August 16, 2021).
In addition, China saw the U.S. presence in Afghanistan as a strategic threat to China. As a result, the U.S. withdrawal and the return to power of the Taliban, with whom Beijing has close ties, were generally seen as advantageous geopolitical developments for China. Following the Taliban’s victory, many foreign embassies closed their missions in Afghanistan; however, the Chinese mission remained in operation (Xinhuanet, August 16, 2021). China has strategic, political, economic, and security interests in Afghanistan that it wants to secure. The existence of any central administration ruling Kabul that is comfortable with China is favorable to the latter. Furthermore, China knows the Taliban needs its support as they seek political, economic, and moral support to consolidate their rule and attain international legitimacy.
Likewise, the Taliban wants China to support them politically and to invest in the war-torn country to advance stability and provide job opportunities that help build up the shaky Afghan economy. Before the fall of Kabul, a Taliban delegation led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Biradar visited China in late July 2021 and held meetings with high-level Chinese officials, including then Foreign Minister Wang Yi (Xinhuanet, July 28, 2021). The Taliban delegation gave the impression that they do not believe in interfering in any country’s internal affairs, an indication of acquiescence to the PRC’s prerogatives with regards to Xinjiang. The Taliban stressed that their agenda is limited to Afghanistan and does not pose a direct threat to any neighboring country. Despite these assurances, the Taliban’s return to power encourages other insurgent groups to accelerate their struggle and overtake the area they are fighting for. The Tehrik-i-Taliban (TTP) in Pakistan is a prime example in this regard.
The Taliban administration in Kabul believes that, considering the profound uncertainty and difficulties confronting the country, Beijing has emerged as arguably its best partner. The Taliban are looking for cordial relations with all neighbors and global actors to gain politico-economic and moral support and establish a meaningful engagement. The state-affiliated Global Times reported: “U.S. President Joe Biden has stated that the U.S. “mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation building” and is weighing further sanctions to cripple the Afghan economy,” arguing that the U.S. has failed and China will move the mission forward (Global Times, August 26, 2021). Hence, China views its ability to fill the void left by the U.S. in Afghanistan as advancing its interests and expanding its clout in the region.
Quid Pro Quo?
China-Taliban engagement is not new. The Taliban have been frequent visitors to China for years. Even in the 1990s, Beijing engaged with the Taliban to curb militants’ infiltration into western China.  Afghanistan is important to Beijing strategically and economically as it connects China with the Persian Gulf and Iran. Similarly, Afghanistan is a potential route for BRI with extensive natural resources. Hence, China had been pressing the Taliban to take a clear stance vis-à-vis militancy, i.e., East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) (South China Morning Post (SCMP), August 6, 2021). So far, the Taliban have stated unequivocally that they will not interfere in the internal affairs of any country.
In order to promote security and advance its economic and strategic interests in Afghanistan, China has closely cooperated with and supported the Taliban during the post-U.S. withdrawal period. China is providing humanitarian aid and concessions to the Taliban government; however, several developments are still off the record. One such behind the scenes development is China’s provision of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) to the Taliban, which has significantly boosted its forces’ combat capabilities. 
How Does Chinese Drone Technology Assist the Taliban?
The Taliban has had access to UAV technology since at least 2016, when the group released a suicide bomber’s footage taken from a drone driving a Humvee vehicle into a police camp in southern Helmand province (YouTube, October 24, 2016). The Taliban first used a simple camera-bearing drone to shoot footage used in propaganda videos. Also, the Taliban tactfully capitalized on using these drones to put psychological pressure on their enemies, especially the Afghan forces. Those drones were commercial, not combat, but they psychologically impacted the Afghan forces’ minds. “It was very obvious that the Taliban were going to imitate American drone warfare because what we’ve seen for a couple of years, not just in Afghanistan but also in other regions where Americans have waged war, is that militant groups try to imitate this kind of warfare,” said Emran Feroz in an interview (TRT World, January 1, 2021).
For around three years, the Taliban used commercial drones for various purposes that needed to be more capable of hitting any vital target. They used to conventionally modify commercial drones by putting grenade shells in beverage bottles. However, the Taliban’s use of UAV technology has evolved over time. In 2019, the Taliban established a specialized unit for drones that could help the group carry out combat operations.  The drone unit, which was headquartered in Kunduz, was responsible for hitting the Afghan government’s high-value targets. However, for such an operation, the ‘unit’ needed an advanced combat drone capable of hitting targets. Hence, the unit asked an Afghan company to purchase an advanced drone. Thus, the first drone was attained through a front company from China and cost $60,000, which engineers tailored to carry four mortar rounds (New Lines Magazine, September 15, 2021). This provided the Taliban with a more enhanced machine that would efficiently hit any target. The unit engineers painted the drone a dark blue color that was difficult to detect.
The first coordinated attack by the Taliban drone unit was recorded in Kunduz in November 2020, when UAVs attacked the bodyguards of a provincial governor at his residence (TOLO News, November 9, 2020). Previously, the Taliban had conducted several dry-run attacks on the Afghan forces’ check posts. Besides targeting Afghan government officials, the Taliban drone unit once planned to attack U.S. soldiers. However, the plot was detected and U.S. officials warned the Taliban’s Qatar office to refrain an act that could violate the Doha deal (New Lines Magazine, September 15, 2021).
The drone unit was reportedly instrumental in the Taliban’s string of military victories that resulted in the August 2021 capture of Kabul. However, the drone unit still uses modified commercial drones for surveillance and operations. In order to upgrade its UAV capabilities, the Taliban have struck a deal with China to purchase Blowfish attack drones. Since the fall of Kabul, the Taliban have faced stiff resistance from ISKP targeting the Taliban, foreign missions, and civilian targets (Global Times, October 26, 2022). For the Taliban, this situation is frustrating and they are presumably looking for weapons, such as attack drones, which can help neutralize the ISKP threat.
The Blowfish strengthens the Taliban’s combat capability in operations against its opponents, especially ISKP. It will also put considerable pressure on other resistance movements, including the National Resistance Front in the Panjsher Valley. The Taliban are militarily active against the NRF members in the valley. Ahmed Masoud recently called for a new anti-Taliban “political front” at a Vienna conference in mid-September 2022, where 30 anti-Taliban leaders participated and demonstrated commitment to resist the group (The Express Tribune, September 16, 2022). Moreover, these drones can also be used for border security, especially on the border with Iran and Pakistan, where clashes often break out. At the moment, the Taliban are bent on securing a firm hold over Afghanistan, extricating it from the economic crisis and getting international recognition and aid, despite banning girls’ schools and establishing authoritarian rule over the country.
The recent attack by ISKP on a hotel in Kabul that mostly housed Chinese nationals is one of several concerning recent security developments in Afghanistan, not only for China, but also for the Taliban. The group desperately needs financial support, political support and even hopes that Beijing may someday extend diplomatic recognition. China has economic, political, security and strategic interests in Afghanistan and has maintained close contact with the Taliban over the last decade. Moreover, Beijing wants the Taliban not to allow Afghanistan’s soil to be used as a base for operations targeting China. As the Taliban comes to see China as a crucial supporter, they have made greater efforts to meet Beijing’s prerogatives.
It is evident that the Taliban took a turn after 9/11 and accepted the use of advanced technologies, both in the form of new communication methods to disseminate their voice and narrative and by adopting new weapons for combat purposes. For the last several years, the Taliban have been comfortable with using drone technology. The Taliban’s use of drones and their evolution is unique, as they started with small commercial drones, then went on to acquire agricultural drones that were modified and used as military drones. And now, despite an uphill journey, the Taliban has acquired Blowfish attack drones. During the Taliban’s campaigns against its opponents, Afghan government forces vacated checkpoints before the attacks were conducted as they could not counter drone strikes. This demonstrates that drones have had a considerable impact on the Taliban’s way of warfare. The limitations of commercial or agricultural drones led them to acquire advanced combat drones from China. China’s reported delivery of combat drones to the Taliban will considerably impact U.S.-China relations and the Taliban’s combat capability to target ISKP and other adversaries.
Zafar Iqbal Yousafzai is the author of The Troubled Triangle: US-Pakistan Relations under the Taliban’s Shadow (Routledge, 2021).
 Miwa Hirono, “China’s Conflict Mediation and the Durability of the Principle of Non-Interference: The Case of Post-2014 Afghanistan,” The China Quarterly, March 4, 2019, 614-634.
 Interview with a relevant person involved in China’s drone technology company, September 19, 2022.
 Interview with a Taliban official, December 23, 2022.