China offers Taliban road network in exchange for peace

China has offered to build a road network for the Taliban if they can ensure peace in Afghanistan after the US military withdrawal, according to two senior tribal leaders in Pakistan with close ties to the militants.

Diplomats from Beijing offered “sizeable investments in energy and infrastructure projects” in the country during talks that have been taking place over the past three months in Beijing, the tribal leaders from Pakistan’s south-western Balochistan province told the Financial Times.

“Chinese officials have told the Taliban to bring peace [to Afghanistan] and China will invest in roads to begin with,” said one leader.

“In future, China also wants to look at energy projects like generating electricity and then transporting oil and gas from central Asia [through Afghanistan].”

A second tribal leader in Balochistan, who returned from Afghanistan in late August after spending a month there, said China had pledged to build motorways that would link Afghanistan’s main cities.

“The Chinese promise is led by a road network across Afghanistan. Once such a network is built with six-lane highways, the Chinese have said local commerce and trade will flourish,” he said.

A senior Pakistani government official in the foreign ministry confirmed that Chinese officials continued to meet Taliban representatives as the Trump administration began withdrawing troops. The US signed a peace deal with the insurgents in February.

But the withdrawal, which was supposed to be completed in 14 months from signing the deal last year, has been stymied by a series of deadly Taliban attacks on Afghan security forces and civilians.

“The Chinese are thinking ahead on Afghanistan and laying the ground for the future,” said James Dorsey, a Singapore-based security expert.

“The Chinese are taking increasing interest in countries close to their border,” he said, adding that Afghanistan fitted in “China’s overall interest”.

Peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government in Kabul have been held up for months over the attacks and a delayed prisoner exchange.

After a strategic dialogue between China, Pakistan and Afghanistan in July, foreign ministry officials from the countries warned of a “potential terrorist resurgence” in Afghanistan if US troops were not pulled out “responsibly”.

The US has reduced its troop levels to about 8,600 soldiers and President Donald Trump has said he would like to halve that number before the November presidential election.

A former Pakistani intelligence official who spoke to the FT from Peshawar said China’s involvement with the Taliban had helped to nudge the hardline movement towards peace.

Pakistan’s security agencies hold deep ties to the Taliban in Afghanistan and have for decades armed and financed them to secure regional supremacy.

More recently, they have helped bring the Taliban to the negotiating table to hash out a peace deal with the US.

“The Chinese have repeatedly pressed the Taliban to see the benefits of an economically revitalised Afghanistan. That’s a message no one else is delivering as powerfully as the Chinese right now,” the former Pakistani intelligence official said.

“The Taliban recognise China for not only having the financial means but also the motive to develop Afghanistan.”

Additional reporting by Stephanie Findlay in New Delhi

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